In full steam

Shoaib Akhtar claimed 17 wickets, including a five-wicket innings haul at the business end of the three-Test series as Pakistan vanquished the powerful English team 2-0. It was a strong performance from a man who had displayed the strength of character to overcome adversity, writes S. DINAKAR

THE crowd melted away, the team bus transported the cricketers back to their destination, the ground-staff finished clearing up the arena, the television crew put those huge cables back in the vehicles, and the dust settled on a dramatic series.

The `deafening' silence reflected the mood of dejection that had swept through the Pakistani ranks at the Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium. Had the host triumphed, the celebrations would have continued late into the evening.

It was on April 16, 2004, that India achieved an epochal first Test series victory in Pakistan. The home side had been crushed by an innings and 131 runs. The Indians cavorted in a moment of rare history.

The Pakistani spectators had been sporting and appreciative as the Indians waltzed home. But then, the tame manner in which the Inzamam-ul-Haq's team succumbed had disappointed the fans. And much of their anger was directed at Shoaib Akhtar; the speedster was in the eye of the storm in his own backyard.

Akhtar had left the arena during a critical phase of the Indian innings citing pain in his back. And there were more questions than answers after his departure. He returned to biff a 14-ball 28, batting without any sign of physical discomfort on the fourth and last day. More eyebrows were raised and Akhtar found himself looking into a career crisis.

The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) inquisition that followed meant his integrity was questioned. Was he faking an injury?

An x-ray confirmed a stress fracture of the ribs, but Akhtar faced serious charges of indiscipline. Difficult days loomed for the fast bowler.

Pakistan captain Inzamam made no attempt to hide his feelings about being let down by his strike bowler. Things had been simmering between the captain and the fast bowler and they boiled over in the decider. Akhtar was unhappy with Inzamam's field placements, while the skipper felt his premier fast bowler was lacking in commitment. It was a climate of mutual suspicion between the two senior cricketers in the Pakistani side. Could the team pull together?

Indeed, his growing rift with Inzamam, his leaving-the-field-act, and the subsequent spat with the PCB meant Akhtar faced an uncertain phase. In a stern warning to the temperamental paceman, PCB told Akhtar that his attitude in the coming days would be closely monitored and he would have to prove his fitness in the domestic competitions. It was a far cry from the time when the Rawalpindi Express was the unquestioned King of the attack.

He needed to mellow down, without forgoing the aggressive streak that is so essential to his kind of bowling. Easier said than done for the merchants of extreme speed are often a volatile bunch.

Akhtar has managed to turn the corner.

Those days of angst and discontent in Pakistan's cricket now seem a distant memory. Pakistan is humming again as a team. Inzamam has emerged a strong captain. And Akhtar has rediscovered his role as the lynchpin in the pace attack.

Pakistan's 2-0 conquest of a powerful English side that aspires to be the best in the world was a stunning achievement by a team that appeared to be disintegrating only 17 months ago. And Akhtar's 17 wickets in the three Tests, that included a five-wicket innings haul at the business end of the series in Lahore, was a strong performance from a man who had displayed the strength of character to overcome adversity.

Several critical happenings had occurred during the period for the country. Inzamam has led by example and foresight. The captain has been a shining example to the younger members, while forcing the seniors to raise the bar — Akhtar was no exception.

Pacemen such as Rana Naved have challenged Akhtar in the Pakistan side. Now Naved can generate surprising speeds, can swing the ball, and his wickedly swerving yorker that made a mess of Michael Vaughan's stumps in the second Test in Faisalabad was quite the delivery of the series. There was pressure on Akhtar to lift his performance.

Then there is the Bob Woolmer factor. Among the game's foremost strategists, Woolmer is also adept at man-management skills. The coach realised the value of Akhtar — but a more refined version of him at that.

Woolmer had identified the core areas where Pakistan needed to improve. Among them was pace bowling. He needed his bowlers to land the ball in the right areas around the off-stump. In other words, be more disciplined.

In the disastrous home series against India, the Pakistani pacemen had erred in both length and direction as the Indian batsmen waded into them. There were a few probing spells, but the heat could not be maintained from both the ends, and there was always an escape route for the batsmen. There is this belief that if Akhtar could keep his emotions under check, he could usher in an element of consistency in his bowling, an ingredient that was so lacking on certain occasions in the past. He had been letting off too much steam as well. It was time for a more modern, sleeker, calmer engine to propel the Rawalpindi Express forward.

Akhtar, initially, had trouble integrating with the team and Woolmer's ideas. When the coach asked him to adopt a shorter run-up and operate with more control, Akhtar responded by using the analogy of aircraft and runway. He needed to fly, he said.

The Pakistani tearaway was the target of the Aussie mind games too down under. Glenn McGrath taunted Akhtar that all his extra speed was of little consequence if it was not blended with control. Provoked, Akhtar saw red, and it was an unhappy tour for him, even if he produced a couple of blistering spells.

Now Akhtar's ego, his desire to break the barriers of speed even if his methods and tactics conflicted with the interests of the team, and his image of a show-boat, were turning into self-created barriers for him. In his quest to generate pace, he was giving away runs Pakistan could ill-afford to concede.

Peer down Akhtar's career and you would discover that it is sprinkled with temperamental flare-ups, controversies over action, allegations of ball tampering, and charges of high-handed behaviour.

For some, he was fast and furious, for others wild and reckless. And the line between the two perceptions is thin. While he can be destructive with the ball, he can also prove self-destructive.

When he finds rhythm, Akhtar can decimate the best of line-ups with his scorching pace. But then he can so easily go off the boil, appearing listless and ordinary.

There is no dearth of colour, drama or excitement though when he thunders in and lets it rip. It's engaging fare all the way even if his `action' does not convince all.

The man from Rawalpindi has survived several critical points in his career. None bigger than when the University of Western Australia cleared his action on the grounds that he had hyper extensive joints. For Akhtar, the verdict represented a lifeline.

His long, fluent and rhythmical run-up is among the most impressive in world cricket. He can run into trouble in a rather spectacular fashion too. While his speed gives him an immediate advantage over his rivals, it had to be well-directed for him to be a regular threat. When his mind and body are in harmony, he can be a handful, making deep inroads with his reverse swinging yorkers, lethal short-pitched deliveries, and the mean away-swingers he unleashes from time to time. And he does provoke extreme reactions — either the popular hero or the high profile villain.

But then, Akhtar clearly was not doing justice to his own ability. He needed to change his ways or face an extended period of absence from the Pakistan team. From the Man on the Fast Lane, he had to be the Man of the Sensible Lane. Akhtar had to shed the `bad boy' image and fast.

In the event, Pakistan's dramatic victory in the Bangalore Test this year, which enabled the side to level the series 1-1, must have come as a rude awakening for Akhtar, who was missing from action. And a wake-up call.

In his absence, Mohammed Sami bowled with fire and hostility in the Test series, and in the ODIs that followed, where India was outplayed, Rana Naved was brilliant with his late swing. Inzamam, maturing as a leader, had rallied his young men behind him. But Pakistan still needed Akhtar; apart from adding firepower, he would lend a young attack experience.

After the departure of the two great Ws, Pakistan is still in the middle of a transitional phase. Akhtar has to pull his weight as a senior bowler who could inspire the younger pacemen, much like what a Wasim or a Waqar used to accomplish effortlessly.

Akhtar was just that in the recent Test series where England was tamed. The fragrance of a famous series triumph and the satisfaction of personal success can do wonderful things to people and Akhtar is saying the right things these days. He talks about the spirit of the Pakistani side: "The boys are backing each other, their tolerance levels have increased."

He now lavishes praise on Inzamam: "Inzamam is not just a leader, but a huge motivator." And sends out a warning to the Indian team: "Our victory over England sets up one hell of a series against India." As Indian skipper Rahul Dravid pointed out, Pakistan is a much better and a more experienced unit than when India visited its neighbour last year.

Akhtar too will have an opportunity to exorcise the ghosts of Rawalpindi.